Peak fall color season is upon is here in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a beautiful late summer that was for the most part warm and dry, the signs of autumn are everywhere in the park. With the exception of the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park, most locations at the mid to higher elevations are at or just a little bit past peak. No need to panic, there is plenty of fall color to be found in Rocky right now and I suspect that will be the case for at the least the next two weeks.
As stated above, we have had a very warm and mild late summer in Rocky and that pattern looks like it’s going to continue through next week. The mild weather appears to be not only enhancing some of the fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is allowing for the color to linger. Colorado is famous the world over for it’s beautiful stands of aspens which turn golden in autumn. It’s what many visitors to the area come to see. While Rocky may not have some of the large towering stands of aspens that some of the famous western slope towns of Aspen, Crested Butte and Ridgway boast, there are still plenty of them to admire and photograph.
With that said regarding the hillsides of golden aspens don’t overlook all the more subtle foliage that are currently resplendent in their autumn glory throughout the park right now. The color at or near timberline in the park is currently as colorful and beautiful as I can recall. The warm days have allowed for beautiful reds, yellows and orange hue’s. I hiked up to timberline just below Longs Peak yesterday and was astounded by how colorful and beautiful the autumn conditions are. The scenes are reminiscent of autumn on the Alaska tundra.
There are too many potential locations to list right now which hold great potential for fall landscape photography in Rocky. The usual suspects such as the Bierstadt Moraine and the Bear Lake area all look great as of this writing. But if you want to avoid the crowds as well as other photographers, head for the higher elevations while the warm temperatures last and enjoy the colorful show currently unfolding near timberline.
There are expectations and then there is reality. In photography this is especially true when I look back at the end of the week and review how I did and what kind of images I was able to create. It’s always fun at the start of a new week to browse the weather forecasts and try to guess if its going to be a productive and dynamic week for photography. Sometimes the weather cooperates and you can get three, four or even five days of beautiful sunrises, clouds in the sky or other elements like rain and snow to help with your image making. Other times you may go four or five days with nary a cloud in the sky to help out. Usually I find that you end up somewhere in the middle. Never as many dynamic mornings as you would like, and often you can get at least one or two better than expected sunrises.
Last week in Rocky Mountain National Park fell more or less on the tame side of dynamic weather and conditions. For the most part last week mornings were clear and cloudless in Rocky Mountain National Park. These are beautiful conditions for visitors and hikers, but not exactly the kind of conditions photographers hope for in Rocky. It’s hard to get motivated to get out there in the field if it looks as if there is not a cloud within 800 miles of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even with conditions less than ‘photographer perfect’ one should still be able to capture some dynamic images. With a bit of planning, some luck and a few clouds floating in the right location things may break your way.
While last week was more difficult and less productive than I would like, I was still able to come away with images I was pleased with two of the three mornings I managed to get out in the field. On those two productive mornings clouds were present in the sky but not over the high peaks and continental divide. This is a fairly typical setup for Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, if I had to venture a guess I would say well over 60% of the time one is more likely to have clouds to the east of Rocky then over the high peaks and continental divide. This is an important fact to keep in my when photographing Rocky Mountain National Park.
I stress this in my blog often and also do so when out with other photographers or students on photo tours in the park. While its true that many of the iconic images in Rocky Mountain National Park are of locations where clouds over the peaks benefit the image, more often than not mother nature and the weather will hand you lemons of which you will need to make lemonade. In this case you need to make lemonade by losing preconceived notions of what you want to photograph and do the following. Look at whats going on behind you or the east of your preferred morning location. If you are going to successfully photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park you are going to need to incorporate images that may not include some of the well known iconic peaks such as Longs and Hallett Peak. Remember, more than likely your going to have clouds and dynamic lighting east of your location.
By all means head out to Rocky with the intention of photographing clouds over the iconic peaks and mountains. This is Colorado after all and we all aspire for images of brilliant clouds floating over jagged peaks while reflecting in mirror like lakes below. The reality of photographing Rocky Mountain National Park is that these conditions are difficult to achieve often but with a backup plan and willingness to throw convention out with the trash, photographers can make stunning imagery with an open mind and a willingness to point the camera opposite of the icons. On what otherwise would have been an unproductive week of photography, this strategy worked well for me last week as it would have for others.
It’s happening one again. The seasons of change are sweeping over Rocky Mountain National Park and our summer season is transitioning towards autumn. Whether it be the sounds of a bull elk bugle in a meadow or sets of aspen leaves turning golden yellow it’s becoming more apparent by the day that summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is nearing it’s conclusion.
For photographers this is both and exciting time of year as well as a hectic time of year. For many landscape photographers, fall is their favorite time of years. The changing seasons, the vibrant fall color, shorter and cooler days all tend to energize and inspire landscape photographers to get out and create images.
While this transition season is an exciting and inspiring time of year, it’s also hectic. Speaking for myself I find that I am both trying to extend the summer season and anticipate the coming fall season. Access to Rocky’s backcountry is still easy before snow and freezing temperatures set in allowing for me to continue to work on summer like images and access much of the park. At the same time I’m keeping an eye on the subtle and not so subtle changes associated with the onset of fall. It’s certainly great to have a lot of options at hand, but it creates stress in that decisions need to be made on what subjects to photograph.
One would think that having lots of options would be a good thing, and for the most part it is. What makes the decisions difficult is not having options, but trying to time and guess just how long one will have these options available. Timing is everything this time of year and one early season snowstorm or cold snap can quickly alter both your options and your plans.
A cold snap, wind storm, or snow can strip the leaves from the trees, cover the trails in snow and cause the surface of the lakes to freeze. In one fell swoop both your options to photograph summer like scenes as well as autumn scenes and fall color can vanish for the year. This urgency to beat out the unknown is what makes the transitional season from summer to autumn so tricky to time out and photograph.
Worrying aside, right now is about as good as it gets to photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park. Leaves are starting to change on aspen trees, streams are flowing freely and access to Rocky’s backcountry as well as Trail Ridge Road is unfettered. It’s time to take advantage of this great time of year and make the most of the photographic opportunities.
I’ll keep one eye to my cameras viewfinder and the other on the weather reports and fall color reports. As always it will be hectic, stressful, fun and a productive time to photograph in Rocky. But as they say in sports, it’s crunch time.